In his latest novel, prize-winning author Justin Cartwright offers an absorbing tale of two men from different cultures whose friendship is ruptured by the conflagration of World War II. Based on actual events, Cartwright's novel reflects with true insight on the way in which momentous historical events have the power to test, and ultimately reveal, human character.

Most of The Song Before It Is Sung is told through the eyes of Conrad Senior, a journalist who finds himself in his mid-30s on the verge of divorce, and with little to show for his fitful labors. Senior's former Oxford mentor, Elya Mendel, has bequeathed to him a collection of his papers, enjoining the writer to explore the close friendship formed between the Jewish Mendel and Axel von Gottberg, an aristocratic German Rhodes Scholar, at Oxford in the 1930s.

The bond between Mendel and von Gottberg is strained almost to the breaking point when von Gottberg returns to Germany and writes a letter to the Manchester Guardian, asserting that reports of persecution against Jews in the German courts lack any basis in fact. Mendel concludes that his friend is a loyal Nazi and his resulting denunciation undermines von Gottberg's persistent, but ultimately futile efforts to persuade influential leaders in the West that the coming war can be averted.

Once war erupts, von Gottberg watches with rising alarm as the madness of the Nazi regime obliterates the idealized Germany he longs so desperately to preserve. He finally joins the July 1944 plot against Hitler, and when that assassination attempt fails, von Gottberg is tortured and eventually hanged along with the other conspirators. Senior's dogged research into von Gottberg's final days leads him to Berlin, where he uncovers a grisly film of the German's execution, and a poignant letter written days before his death that attempts to set the record straight between the old friends.

The Song Before It Is Sung is a multilayered work, challenging us to ask ourselves how well we know our fellow human beings, especially those closest to us. Harvey Freedenberg writes from Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.

 

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